WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Millions of Americans, especially those who didn't vote for him, sincerely wished good health to the president after the flu floored him in Tokyo. Not the least of their reasons was the vice president.
Every time a president has a serious illness, or just looks sick, the nation and the world cannot help but think of what would happen if he did not survive.
That was true when Franklin Roosevelt declined so visibly, then when a stroke killed him in the spring of 1945. Harry Truman had been vice president only 82 days, and the country knew very little about him. We were lucky.
It was true, too, when Dwight Eisenhower had his heart attack and his ileitis problem, which didn't kill him. We were still lucky.
When John Kennedy was murdered, we had as vice president a man of brains, immense Washington savvy and congressional leadership. When Richard Nixon quit instead of waiting for impeachment, we got a safe, experienced interim president -- but if he had gone a year sooner, we would have gotten Ted Agnew, the only vice president to quit under criminal indictment.
Up to now, luck has stayed with us, despite the foolhardy way in which our potential presidents have often been chosen.
My colleague Jules Witcover, in his perfectly timed new book, ''Crapshoot: Rolling the Dice on the Vice Presidency,'' examines this absurd way of tempting fate, focusing on the ''Damoclean sword'' that Mr. Bush so frivolously hung over the nation's head.
''There is a tendency in discussing Quayle to dismiss him as a sort of harmless joke that Bush played on his party and the country,'' Mr. Witcover writes. ''This impression is augmented by Quayle's pleasant and generally inoffensive persona.
''But that presence veneers the risk that, in this era of America world leadership, a man ill prepared by education, experience and intelligence, and lacking in maturity, is poised to assume the most influential public office on the face of the globe.''
David Broder and Bob Woodward looked deeply into Mr. Quayle's background, before and after he took the No. 2 office, for a long series in the Washington Post. They have revealed nothing like a smoking gun, no single thing that by itself proves the vice president is incompetent or deeply flawed. What dismays is the totality of the evidence.
They found that in 1988, while he was still the junior senator from Indiana, Mr. Quayle quietly campaigned for George Bush's attention and consideration. They fleshed out the story of how Mr. Quayle, as chairman of the President's Council on Competitiveness, has helped sidetrack many government regulations meant to protect consumers.
Mr. Quayle, in that post, has determined to ''leave no fingerprints'' that might prejudice consumers against him, while taking credit from big business for his efforts. That reminds of how Mr. Bush left no tracks but got the same kind of political mileage from chairing Ronald Reagan's Task Force on Deregulation.
Indeed, there are theories that Mr. Bush chose Mr. Quayle as his running mate because he saw the younger politician as a boyish image of himself, and others that he picked him because he was so lightweight that he could not possibly overshadow Mr. Bush himself in campaign or in office.
But they are all theories, for an action impossible to explain. Except for calling Mr. Quayle, like Judge Clarence Thomas, the ''best qualified'' person for the job, the president has never offered an explanation of just why he treated the vice presidency like a party favor, producing Dan Quayle at the New Orleans convention like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The habit of keeping the No. 2 choice secret until the last moment developed when political conventions still picked candidates, and the second spot could be swapped for delegate blocs to sew up the presidential nomination. As a result, the roster of American vice presidents includes more nonentities than famous names. But those were pre-nuclear times, before worldwide real-time communication, when ignoring trouble afar was often the best course.
Today, the primaries usually decide the top of the ticket. Even after the collapse of communism, potential dangers at home and abroad must be handled with firm expertise. To treat the vice presidency lightly in 1992 is irresponsible, just as it was in 1988.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.